Saturday, March 31, 2012

Alan Govenar's THE BEAT HOTEL takes us back to bohemian/beatnik Paris of the 50s

Do the names Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky and William Burroughs set your heart aflutter? (My upstairs neighbor runs the other direction when he hears the roster.) For some, these are/were the kind of guys you might like to read but wouldn't want to live with. You get the chance to do the latter, possibly as closely as you'd care to, in the new documen-tary THE BEAT HOTEL that takes us back to the beatnik/bohemian Paris of the period between 1957 - 1963 and to the shabby (but hardly chic) little hotel where they, and others of their ilk, resided.

Directed by Alan Govenar (shown at left) and with some smart animation by Blas Garcia and Alan Hatchett (who also edited the film), and some even funnier drawings from Elliot Rudie (like the one of Burroughs, below), the documentary is a lot of fun and remarkably alive. This is due in no small measure to the wonderful photography by Scottish shutterbug Harold Chapman (who lived in the hotel during this time and to a large extent narrates the movie) -- bringing back the shadow side of the "city of lights" from a half-century past. Chapman's moody, lovely, on-the-fly photos capture the people and the time with artful, seemingly artless ease, and one of the most interesting (even to a non-photographer like TrustMovies) sections of the film involves Chapman's explanation of how, first step to last, he created what he calls, quite charmingly and rightly, his highly original kind of "dustbin photography."

Probably but a very few of my readership will be old enough to recall the era of Europe on $5 a Day (Arthur Frommer's series of wildly popular travel books that actually began in 1957, the same year as does this film). If it seems impossible to imagine now -- what with inflation, the Euro and the exchange rate practically reversed from the time in which it favored Americans traveling abroad rather than Europeans coming over here -- one really could do Europe in this affordable manner. So when the movie tells us that the "beats" who stayed at this cheap, no-name hotel paid but 10 francs per day (then, the equivalent of about 50 cents), we can only marvel. Of course, this got you a very tiny room: The small hotel had but one bath for everyone and hot water maybe two-to-three times per week.

The hotel's proprietress, Madame Rochou (that's she behind the bar, slightly to the right) -- who served sandwiches to the local police, mostly to keep them off track of the drugs and local prostitutes (some of whom the police themselves made use of) -- appeared to have an appreciation of artists and no interest at all in their art. But she did have the need to create, the narrator recalls, "a little resistance movement against all authority." Which fit perfectly with the needs of the her hotel's occupants. Chatty and all-over-the-place, the movie sometimes seems as discombobulated as were the hotels' residents. But it is always interesting.

Along the way we get a slice of these artists' works -- the poem by Ginsberg (shown at right) to his Aunt Rose, a history of Burroughs' Naked Lunch (or, as we learn, due to a Freudian typo, "Naked Lust") and lots more. I usually resent "re-enactments" in documentaries (unless like James Marsh, one does them so well that they fool me). Here, the re-enactments are done with enough wit and charm -- plus black-and-white photography and actors who look like their subjects -- that these engage us surprisingly well. One, in which Burroughs (shown below) and his associates put on a "magic" act, using light and film to make the writer disappear, is a real delight.

Some critics dismissed the movie as yet another tired attempt at nostalgia. This is simply not true. Perhaps the real audience for this documentary are senior citizens like myself, who remember this time, and its people, and its artistic protest with some fondness, even if we ourselves were nowhere near the creative front of the avant-garde. Thanks to the work of Mr. Govenar and his crew, and to the photos and narration of Mr. Chapman, we can understand this time/place/cast from a point of genuine nearness and the kind of personal angle that, until now, we've never experienced.

The Beat Hotel, 82 minutes, from First Run Features, opened theatrically yesterday here in New York City at the Cinema Village.  To view all currently scheduled upcoming playdates, with cities and theaters, click here.  Knowing FRF, you'll also be able to catch up with the film on DVD, eventually.

Friday, March 30, 2012

New to the Spanish scare-movie roster: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's INTRUDERS

It should be no secret to film buffs by now how Spain has pretty much taken over the scary-movie business by combining ingredients in a manner not found elsewhere: beauty, passion, art, as well as darkness, pain, family and history. Pan's Labyrinth was a chief example, followed by The Orphanage, while the works of Guillem Morales -- Julia's Eyes and The Uninvited Guest -- are under-seen standouts of the genre.  Now comes INTRUDERS, from short-film/Oscar-nominated director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (shown below, of Intacto and 28 Weeks Later), which, if it does not reach the heights of the best Spanish scares, does a creditable enough job to rate a viewing for genre aficionados.

Two children -- a young boy, Juan (Izán Corchero, below, left), and a teenage girl, Mia (Ella Purnell) -- in Spain and England are having awfully realistic night-mares involving a kind of faceless man with a body that is frighteningly supple and agile. Their parents (Pilar López de Ayala, below, right, plays Juan's mom, while stalwart Clive Owen is Mia's dad) are having a hell of a time with the kids; Owens appears to also see the weird intruder, though Juan's mom, it seems, does not.

Priests (Daniel Brühl, below, and Héctor Alterio) are brought in for the boy (exorcisms, you know) and a therapist for the girl (England's not a Catholic country anymore), and for a time we are handed the currently in-vogue folie à deux medical theory (shades of the recent Apart!). But nothing finally helps -- until the movie-maker lets loose a surprise, uniting the characters and their stories, and giving the movie the charge it needs to fully engage us and finally carry itself home.

Fresnadillo, with his special-effects people and a nice sense of pacing, does good work building suspense and scares, and his lead actors (the kids, Owens and de Ayala) are believable enough and help draw us in.

But the story simply has too many characters, played by far too good a group of well-known international actors (in addition to those already mentioned, there is Kerry Fox, above, right, essaying the psychologist and Carice van Houten, above, center, as Mia's mother). These people -- actors and their characters -- are given too little to do. They don't much engage us; they just take up time and space.

Even the main characters are seen almost solely in their relationship to Hollowface, the movie's "monster." They, too, could use some fleshing out. We do see Mia's dad on the job in a couple of scenes, one of which, again, has to do with Hollowface -- in a way that comes clear only after the fact. Intruders is very good at making its connections subtly, working us a bit harder than usual, and then paying off by the finale.

What unites the two stories -- everything from cats and storytelling itself to parenting and sex -- helps the movie work as well as it does. Unlike many of its peers in this genre, it opts finally for harmony over anarchy and darkness, and because of this (plus the fact that there is no way the film will be a box-office smash), it will spawn no sequel. It shouldn't. The ending, its sense of completion, is just right.

Intruders, 100 minutes from Millennium Entertainment, opens today, March 30, in New York City at the AMC Empire 25 and the Village Theater VII.  It is also playing at a number of other cities across the country (L.A., San Francisco, Phoenix, to name a few). To find one near you, click here, enter your zip code and see what happens....

Thursday, March 29, 2012

MIRROR MIRROR: Snow White's back and Brett Ratner's got her. Yes, be very afraid

Over the decades, Snow White has survived everything from poisoned apples to the sugar shock of Disney, so does anyone imagine the girl can't bounce back from the clutches of The Ratner Touch? You'll notice that I credit producer Brett Ratner, rather than director Tarsem Singh (shown below), for the not-quite-disaster-but-close-enough-for-jazz mess that is MIRROR MIRROR, one of the two live-action versions about Ms White that are due out this year. Mr. Ratner, whose theatrical products are usually taste-free, comes through again with a movie that attempts to update the Snow White story (while keeping it firmly in storybook-land) but entrusts the screenplay and screen-story to several, shall we say, lesser lights in the Hollywood firmament.

The result is a wit-free 100 minutes, in which the laughs come from typically clichéd situations, as we view some of the most chintzy-looking sets and costumes to be seen in a supposed big-budget Hollywood movie in years. Wait till you get a load of Snow White's wedding dress: ugly and then some -- and not even white. (Is this a way in which to subtly tell us that the bride is not "intact"?) Whatever: All these accoutrements (note the still just below) exhibit the kind of heavy-handed tastelessness that can only come, I fear, from the directives of the fellow in charge.

Given what Mr Singh has done with his former films, I suspect that he was not fully in charge this time around. While he has made only one really terrific movie so far (The Fall, in which his amazing visuals were set against a crackerjack story, deeply felt), his other movies (The Cell and the more recent Immortals) whatever else they might exhibit, were visually very smart.

What little humor to be found comes mostly from the ever alert Nathan Lane (above), who makes his so-so dialog sound almost like clever zingers, and from the much appreciated professionalism of Julia Roberts (poster, top) as the wicked queen.

In the role of the prince, Armie Hammer (above), handsome as ever, descends yet another notch from his good work in The Social Network, below even his so-so turn in last year's most boring film, J. Edgar. The character of "Snow," as she's referred to throughout much of the film, is played by Lily Collins (below), who, despite her overgrown eyebrows, has some of the beauty of the young Elizabeth Taylor. You may, as have I, mixed her name up with that of Lily Cole, an also beautiful but more interesting actress (Rage, and the upcoming Moth Diaries).

The movie's ace-in-the-hole (more like a jack-in-the-hole) is its dwarf contingent, played here, below, as funny, hungry, horny little people. The guys are good. But with better material, they might have been terrific. Oh, well. Young kids -- having seen many fewer films in their lives than we jaded critics -- will probably love it.

Mirror Mirror opens this Friday, March 30, across the country in a theater (probably several) near you. To locate one now, simply click here, then enter your zip code under GET TICKETS at the top left of the screen.

Jon Shenk's THE ISLAND PRESIDENT: that sinking feeling--and in more ways than one

Is there a more depressing movie out these days than THE ISLAND PRESIDENT? Not likely. Not for anyone concerned with the earth and the increasingly hostile environment we're making of it. The encompassing depression likely to be experienced by viewers of the film who also keep up with international news will only grow as the movie goes on because -- unlike most documentaries that hit the screen -- events have caught up with the movie in ways expected (bad enough) and not (which prove even worse).

Prior to his becoming President of the Maldives -- a set of islands in the Laccadive Sea, off the coasts of Sri Lanka and India -- Mohamed Nasheed (shown on above poster and below) was tortured and imprisoned by the ruling dictator of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. After a long and grueling process, Nasheed helped bring democracy to the Maldives and was elected its President, a post he held for a little over three years. Then, just this past February, in what looked like a bloodless coup (but with the threat of blood, should Nasheed not step down), Nasheed resigned and Gayoom's forces again took control of the islands.

During his three-plus years in power, Nasheed devoted his career to calling attention to the fact that, with global warming -- sorry fundamentalists: it must be god, right? -- raising the sea level, the Madives will eventually, and sooner than later, be covered by the ocean around them. It would appear that, unless huge changes to the environment are made by the world's largest and/or most populated countries, the Maldives are scheduled for extinction. So Nasheed took his cause to the world stage, especially to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit -- at which he more or less "starred."

During all this he was concurrently filmed by documentarian Jon Shenk (shown below and co-director on Lost Boys of Sudan) in what is said to be the most time any President of any country has allotted to a filmmaker. But Nasheed is nothing if not smart and PR-oriented. He knew that his little country could only profit from any notice of its plight that he -- and Shenk -- could bring it. And so off the Prez and his filmmaker go, on a kind of whirlwind tour of his country, to New York and the U.N., and to Copenhagen and the Climate Conference.

The U.N. proves useless, as usual, and even at the time, that Climate Conference was said to have achieved next to nothing (events since have proved that assessment on the mark: carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to rise). Under the best of circumstances, what hope is there for the Maldives? And now that Nasheed has been deposed, there is even less. As I say, all this is beyond depressing.

Worse, the movie itself is not all that well-made or worthwhile (unless I am allowing recent events to unduly color my feelings about the film). Yes, Nasheed radiates a positive force and it's fun to watch him work the room, even as it seems apparent that he is unable to accomplish much, other than keeping the spotlight on him and his country. Toward the finale, we see sandbags being placed around the edges of the land, and Nasheed remarks something to the effect that all the nation's resources and money will need to go for this sort of thing, rather than for education and other public services. But if the islands are going to be lost to the water, what good are sandbags? And if these will work, then for how long? The movie, by concentrating so heavily on the Prez and his personality, is missing a lot of factual information that we might like to know.

The Island President's winning of the People's Choice Award at last year's TIFF had more to do with the feel-good aspects of the film: Nasheed's personality and our need to believe that hope remains and help is on the way. Given what has happened since that win, I doubt it would now merit a showing, let alone a prize. Together, the film and current events do raise an interesting question: What should we do at this point? Continue to agitate for climate control? Or first start working for the return of Nasheed to his rightful office as the island President, so that he -- and we -- can then continue to work toward a goal about which the people who control our world clearly do not care.

The movie, 101 minutes, from Samuel Goldwyn Films, opened this past Wednesday, March 28, here in New York City at Film Forum. (There will be a Q&A with filmmaker Jon Shenk at both the 7:50 shows on Friday, March 30 and Saturday, March 31.) The film plays tomorrow, March 30, at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and also opens tomorrow in San Francisco at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema. You can view other dates, cities and theaters by clicking here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Stick with Julie Benasra's new documentary GOD SAVE MY SHOES: It does get better

Initially, it may look like a documentary that only Imedla Marcos could love, but I suggest that you don't give in to the urge to depart until you've seen at least a half-hour of the intriguing, if initially annoying, film GOD SAVE MY SHOES, from first-time filmmaker Julie Benasra (shown below). "Is this a product of the World-Wide Shoe Association?" (surely there is one), you may be thinking, as a plethora of testimony, adding up to oh-lordy-we-loves-our-shoes, springs delightedly from the mouth of nearly every kind of woman you can imagine. (Well, at least from those ladies who can afford to buy, annually, a lot of shoes.)

Our first speaker, Beth Shak, a professional poker player from Bryn Mawr, PA (shown below) tells us she once had 1,400 pair of shoes -- until she ran out of space and had to give away a few hundred of them.

Another woman (Kelly Rowland, ex of Destiny's Child) -- claims to be a "shoe mommie" who names many of her shoe "children." Yikes.

Around the time that another voice claims shoes to be something utterly "primal," you may feel like heading for the hills. And then you meet a charmer named Baroness Monica von Neumann (identified as a "philanthropist" who's been known to pay thousands of dollars for a single pair of shoes), followed by what can only be described as a "dumb blond" who shakes her head negatively and covers her ears, as she hears a newscaster lamenting the state of the economy.

Holy shit, you think: U.S. Republicans, with their misogynistic and idiotic faith-based platform, should get hold of this movie and run with it, for women have rarely looked so foolish and pointless as here. But then, a little at a time, they (and their movie) begin to look somewhat more intelligent and enticing.

Part of the long and interesting history of shoes, shown a bit later, is thoughtful fun and even relatively genuine, I think -- as is the later discussion of exactly which shoe designer actually invented the stiletto heel. (The movie alternates credit between Roger Vivier and Salvatore Ferrugamo, though the definition of the stiletto as "woman's quest for femininity and independence" might prove questionable.

We hear from various shoe designers -- Manolo Blahnik (above), Pierre Hardy, Walter Steiger (below) -- and celebrities from Fergie to the Ferrugamo empire to burlesque queen Dita Von Teese. Even that Baroness begins to sound intelligent, and her visual essay on how to walk correctly in heels is exemplary and sexy. Male designers, we learn, seem to give less thought to comfort (no surprise) than to charisma.

Toward the conclusion we get into the subject of shoes and sex, and then shoes and fetishism, and finally shoes and power. And while little we hear will set the intellectual world ablaze, at least most of it is interesting, with that portion by Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the BATA Shoe Museum in Toronto, proving the most cogent and useful.

God Save My Shoes (only 71 minutes long, from Caïd Productions, with the participation of Canal +) opens in New York City this Friday, March 30, at the Quad Cinema. If there will be other openings in other U.S. cities, the film's web site is not forthcoming with any info.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Jannicke Systad Jacobson's TURN ME ON, DAMMIT! Teen-age love 'n lust in Norway

Have raging hormones ever been portrayed quite as delightfully as in TURN ME ON, DAMMIT!, the new, Norwegian, not-quite-coming-of-age movie from a relatively new filmmaker -- Jannicke Systad Jacobson -- who should, if she lives up to the promise of this quirky little wonder, be around for a long time to come. Several things make this film special, and the first is that it gives us an up-close-and-personal look at exactly how those hormones rage in the mind and spirit of a 15-year-old girl. We just don't see this that often -- in America it is almost always the guys who get to show us the hormone ropes -- but how much more unusual (and fun!) is it to see this from the female perspective.

Ms Jacobson, shown, left, doesn't ignore the guys. In fact, she offers a believable & smart, if slightly stand-offish, look at two of her leading character's classmates: Artur, the hunk-in-training for whom she's got the hots (played by a very appealing Matias Myren, below, right) and a beyond-quirky but char-ming (if you hold your nose) outsider named Kjartan (Lars Nordtveit Listau, two photos below). Our horny heroine, Alma (yes, that means "heart") is given amazing grace, beauty and a fine sense of goofiness by Helene Bergsholmbelow, left.

All three kids are first-time actors, by the way, as are, I suspect, most of the younger cast. The older kids and the adults are played by professionals, and the filmmaker handles both her newcomers and her pros with the same easy grace so that their connections to each other are genuine and their performances truthful and funny, straight across the board.

Among the other "special" things about the film, I would rank high its unique combination of honesty concerning the sexual fantasies and needs of adolescent girls (and boys) -- it certainly tells it like it is -- and the out-and-out charm and often sweetness with which these kids struggle to reach some kind of fulfilling sexual goal. The tone here is always on the mark, no matter how bizarre (sometimes nearly gross) are the machinations of our Miss Alma.

The difficulties that the older generation has with the younger's appetites are delightfully shown, as well  (Henriette Steenstrup makes a wonderfully confused but in-there-trying mother to Alma), while the macho -- or whatever word the Scandinavians use for this -- posturings of the young males make a funny/sad counterpoint to the richer fantasy life of the females, cleverly pointing up how different seem to be the needs of the two sexes.

The wonderful screenplay, also by Ms. Jacobson (from the novel by Olaug Nilssen), makes some drop-dead funny use of the phrase dick-Alma, a new moniker with which our heroine is christened via her response to Artur's sudden, oh-so-male romantic gesture. Dick-Alma follows her along, coming to true fruition in a song composed on the spot by a smart, helpful older fellow who knows how to turn a turd into taffy.

There is so much that's wonderful about this film -- including an understated, feel-good climax that works perfectly -- that I refuse to over-praise it (what -- I already have?). It's short (75 minutes) and sweet and, by certain American standards, dirty (the phone sex scene at the beginning; Artur's very present and visible cock). And yet it is truthful, and dear and real, the kind of film I'd have taken my daughter -- hell, her entire class -- to see in her own adolescent days/daze.

Turn Me On, Dammit!, from New Yorker Films, opens this Friday, March 30, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and The Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Look for it to open mid-April in the Los Angeles area at The Landmark and various Laemmle theaters. To learn all the currently scheduled playdates, click here and then click on the IN THEATERS link on the bar just below the visuals for the film.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rom-Com fest continues as Korean Cultural Center offers MY GIRLFRIEND'S AN AGENT

If there's any doubt -- after last week's screening of Cyrano Agency -- that South Korea excels at rom-coms every bit as easily as it does at dark crime flicks, the coming week's showing of MY GIRLFRIEND IS AN AGENT should lay them to rest for good. If Girlfriend is not as creative or surprising as Cyrano, it's such frothy good fun that I doubt you'll mind a bit. Opening in the top slot at the Korean box-office and staying in the top ten for over two months, this Asian version of Doug Liman's anything-but-light-on-its-feet Mr. & Mrs. Smith (one of its many posters titled this Korean rendition Mr. and Mrs Lee) proves twice as much fun, with almost none of the deadening, smart-ass attitude of the Pitt-Jolie fiasco. 

Combining surprise and disguise (the gun-toting bride, above), unrequited love, adventure, thrills and comedy with one of those nasty viruses that could wipe out the whole world, the movie has not one shred of believability -- which is all to the good. You can relax and giggle while you take in the scenery (including the very enjoyable and hot stars, Kim Ha Neul and Kang Ji-Hwan), the spectacle and the comedy.

Mr. Kang, in particular proves a most adept leading man, as funny as he is sexy, and the crack supporting cast is all to the good. For what the movie does with its delightful display of fencing/dancing (above), I think you'll be glad you stayed. And there's plenty more where that came from.

Offering a terrific gunfight in a fun house and several near-love scenes (we never quite get up to the point of coitus interruptus), My Girlfriend culminates in a spectacular chase and fight sequence that's as much fun as it is exhilharating and fast-paced.

Part of the continuing Korean Movie Night series, My Girlfriend Is An Agent (New York Premiere, 2009) screens free this coming Tuesday, March 27, at 7pm.  

Remember: Korean Movie Night, brought to you by the Korean Cultural Service of New York,  screens every other Tuesday at 7pm at Tribeca Cinemas54 Varick Street, on the corner of Canal Streetone block from the A, C, E and 1 train Canal Street stops). Admission is free, but all seating is first-come, first served.  Doors open at 6:30pm.